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Tackle math anxiety in the special education classroom

Linda Dowson
November 30, 2020

Math anxiety can be a hurdle for students of any ability or achievement level, but by the time they come to me as a resource teacher, they’re even more likely to have internalized negative ideas about their own abilities. Fortunately, the keys to helping students understand that math is not something we are “good” or “bad” at, but a skill that we can learn through practice, are fundamentally the same no matter who the students are. By meeting my students where they are, continuing to challenge them as they progress, giving them the opportunity to learn together and make sense of math in their own terms, and offering them plenty of opportunities for productive struggle, I’ve found that any student can come to think of themselves as someone who can learn math.

Meeting students where they are

For young students, the two subjects they spend the most time on are reading and math, so it’s not a surprise that one of these subjects is the source of a great deal of anxiety. I think math becomes so much more challenging for young students in part because they get a little more instruction and a lot more practice in reading.

But math and reading are also different in pretty fundamental ways. As students learn to read, they develop foundational skills that they then build upon in a fairly linear fashion. With math, there are certainly foundational skills, but learning to calculate volume, for example, is very different from learning division. As they progress, they can begin to feel like they aren’t developing mastery because every time they get it, it’s time to move onto something new that doesn’t necessarily build on what they just learned.

That inability to see math as a progression can lead some students to feel like they’re either going to get it or they’re not, rather than understanding that math is a continuum and they may be anywhere along it. Additionally, students in the resource room are sometimes lacking foundational skills as well. They may not have developed number sense, or they may still be very concrete in their thinking and not ready for more abstract thinking.

In any case, it’s important to meet students where they are at and then move forward, challenging them each step of the way. For kids who are still concrete thinkers, that may mean a lot of work with manipulatives, and for students who still need to develop number sense, it means starting a lot closer to square one. Learning happens at the edges, so the important part is starting from a point of relative confidence and then moving forward. 

Collaboration makes learning stick

Having students work together is such a critical piece of helping them see themselves as math learners because it makes it personal in so many ways.

First, it’s okay if they don’t get it right the first time. When students get something wrong first, then figure out the correct answer, they are so much more likely to remember the correct answer and, more importantly, to remember how they came to the correct answer.

Second, collaboration gets students, both those who are helping and those who are struggling a bit, to talk about math in their own words. Getting them to think about it, turn it over in their heads, and explain it to someone else can be very clarifying for them. It’s just very difficult for a child to be disengaged from math while they’re talking about it with a peer.

And finally, they can learn from one another’s ideas. I don’t want students giving each other the answer, so we work on giving each other clues, or asking their peers, “What can you try next?”

Productive struggle develops grit and endurance

Failing without progress to the point of frustration doesn’t help anyone learn, but when students work on a problem, fail, and try a new approach to solving it, they not only learn at a deeper, more conceptual level, but they develop the grit and determination to persevere through future challenges until they arrive at a solution.

Recently, this all came together for one of my students who was struggling with both reading and math, with standardized assessment scores trailing nearly all his peers in both subjects.

He took an intense interest in ST Math, a program I use with all my students. It is self-paced and teaches math concepts through problem-solving games. Students are presented with challenges and for each challenge, students have to move a penguin named JiJi from one side of the screen to the other .

This student came to me already feeling like he wasn’t a math person and just not good at learning. But he liked gaming, so any time we had a few free moments, he was on a Chromebook trying to get JiJi across the screen. He was moving JiJi when he was at home. Even in class, I’d sometimes have to redirect him to join the rest of us because he was so focused on it. (The need to redirect a student from practicing math is a really great problem to have in a resource room!)

He easily spent more time on it than any other student in the class, and his math scores on his standardized assessments went up 17 points, which was the greatest progress of any of my students that year. Even more telling than the scores, however, was his excitement and eagerness to share his new skills with his peers.

After completing the lessons in ST Math, there are a set of challenges that are particularly spatially based, like flipping a mirror image. These are difficult puzzles for all my students, but he was especially good at completing them, so much so that he decided to solve them for our talent show that year.

I don’t know if that student would tell you he’s a math person today, but I do know that he would tell you that he can learn math, that he can be successful in math. I also know that he didn’t have a whole lot of areas where he could excel and show his peers how to do something, and today he can feel pride in his math skills.

Linda Dowson is a special education resource teacher for 4th- and 5th-graders at Robbinsdale Area Schools, where she uses ST Math with all of her students. She can be reached at linda_dowson@rdale.org

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